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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 13
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The Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 13 Post by :jaybulks Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :3342

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The Shoulders Of Atlas: A Novel - Chapter 13

Chapter XIII

Rose Fletcher had had a peculiar training. She had in one sense belonged to the ranks of the fully sophisticated, who are supposed to swim on the surface of things and catch all the high lights of existence, like bubbles, and in another sense it had been very much the reverse. She might, so far as one side of her character was concerned, have been born and brought up in East Westland, as her mother had been before her. She had a perfect village simplicity and wonder at life, as to a part of her innermost self, which was only veneered by her contact with the world. In part she was entirely different from all the girls in the place, and the difference was really in the grain. That had come from her assimilation at a very tender age with the people who had had the care of her. They had belonged by right of birth with the most brilliant social lights, but lack of money had hampered them. They blazed, as it were, under ground glass with very small candle-powers, although they were on the same shelf with the brilliant incandescents. Rose's money had been the main factor which enabled them to blaze at all. Otherwise they might have still remained on the shelf, it is true, but as dark stars.

Rose had not been sent away to school for two reasons. One reason was Miss Farrel's, the other originated with her caretakers. Miss Farrel had a jealous dread of the girl's forming one of those erotic friendships, which are really diseased love-affairs, with another girl or a teacher, and the Wiltons' reason was a pecuniary one. Among the Wiltons' few assets was a distant female relative of pronounced accomplishments and educational attainments, who was even worse off financially than they. It had become with her a question of bread-and-butter and the simplest necessaries of life, whereas Mrs. Wilton and her sister, Miss Pamela, still owned the old family mansion, which, although reduced from its former heights of fashion, was grand, with a subdued and dim grandeur, it is true, but still grand; and there was also a fine old country-house in a fashionable summer resort. There were also old servants and jewels and laces and all that had been. The difficulty was in retaining it with the addition of repairs, and additions which are as essential to the mere existence of inanimate objects as food is to the animate, these being as their law of growth. Rose Fletcher's advent, although her fortune was, after all, only a moderate one, permitted such homely but necessary things as shingles to be kept intact upon roofs of old family homes; it enabled servants to be paid and fuel and food to be provided. Still, after all, had poor Eliza Farrel, that morbid victim of her own hunger for love, known what economies were practised at her expense, in order that all this should be maintained, she would have rebelled. She knew that the impecunious female relative was a person fully adequate to educate Rose, but she did not know that her only stipend therefor was her bread-and-butter and the cast-off raiment of Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela. She did not know that when Rose came out her stock of party gowns was so limited that she had to refuse many invitations or appear always as the same flower, as far as garments were concerned. She did not know that during Rose's two trips abroad the expenses had been so carefully calculated that the girl had not received those advantages usually supposed to be derived from foreign travel.

While Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela would have scorned the imputation of deceit or dishonesty, their moral sense in those two directions was blunted by their keen scent for the conventionalities of life, which to them had almost become a religion. They had never owned to their inmost consciousness that Rose had not derived the fullest benefit from Miss Farrel's money; it is doubtful if they really were capable of knowing it. When a party gown for Rose was weighed in the balance with some essential for maintaining their position upon the society shelf, it had not the value of a feather. Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela gave regular dinner-parties and receptions through the season, but they invited people of undoubted social standing whom Miss Farrel would have neglected for others on Rose's account. By a tacit agreement, never voiced in words, young men or old who might have made too heavy drains upon wines and viands were seldom invited. The preference was for dyspeptic clergymen and elderly and genteel females with slender appetites, or stout people upon diets. It was almost inconceivable how Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela, with no actual consultations to that end, practised economies and maintained luxuries. They seemed to move with a spiritual unity like the physical one of the Siamese twins. Meagre meals served magnificently, the most splendid conservatism with the smallest possible amount of comfort, moved them as one.

Rose, having been so young when she went to live with them, had never realized the true state of affairs. Mrs. Wilton and Miss Pamela had not encouraged her making visits in houses where her eyes might have been opened. Then, too, she was naturally generous, and not sharp-eyed concerning her own needs. When there were no guests at dinner, and she rose from the table rather unsatisfied after her half-plate of watery soup, her delicate little befrilled chop and dab of French pease, her tiny salad and spoonful of dessert, she never imagined that she was defrauded. Rose had a singularly sweet, ungrasping disposition, and an almost childlike trait of accepting that which was offered her as the one and only thing which she deserved. When there was a dinner-party, she sat between an elderly clergyman and a stout judge, who was dieting on account of the danger of apoplexy, with the same graceful agreeableness with which she would have sat between two young men.

Rose had not developed early as to her temperament. She had played with dolls until Miss Pamela had felt it her duty to remonstrate. She had charmed the young men whom she had seen, and had not thought about them when once they were out of sight. Her pulses did not quicken easily. She had imagination, but she did not make herself the heroine of her dreams. She was sincerely puzzled at the expression which she saw on the faces of some girls when talking with young men. She felt a vague shame and anger because of it, but she did not know what it meant. She had read novels, but the love interest in them was like a musical theme which she, hearing, did not fully understand. She was not in the least a boylike girl; she was wholly feminine, but the feminine element was held in delicate and gentle restraint. Without doubt Mrs. Wilton's old-fashioned gentility, and Miss Pamela's, and her governess's, who belonged to the same epoch, had served to mould her character not altogether undesirably. She was, on the whole, a pleasant and surprising contrast to girls of her age, with her pretty, shy respect for her elders, and lack of self-assertion, along with entire self-possession and good breeding. However, she had missed many things which poor Miss Farrel had considered desirable for her, and which her hostesses with their self-sanctified evasion had led her to think had been done.

Miss Farrel, teaching in her country school, had had visions of the girl riding a thoroughbred in Central Park, with a groom in attendance; whereas the reality was the old man who served both as coachman and butler, in carefully kept livery, guiding two horses apt to stumble from extreme age through the shopping district, and the pretty face of the girl looking out of the window of an ancient coupe which, nevertheless, had a coat of arms upon its door. Miss Farrel imagined Rose in a brilliant house-party at Wiltmere, Mrs. Wilton's and Miss Pamela's country home; whereas in reality she was roaming about the fields and woods with an old bull-terrier for guard and companion. Rose generally carried a book on these occasions, and generally not a modern book. Her governess had a terror of modern books, especially of novels. She had looked into a few and shuddered. Rose's taste in literature was almost Elizabethan. She was not allowed, of course, to glance at early English novels, which her governess classed with late English and American in point of morality, but no poetry except Byron was prohibited.

Rose loved to sit under a tree with the dog in a white coil beside her, and hold her book open on her lap and read a word now and then, and amuse herself with fancies the rest of the time. She grew in those days of her early girlhood to have firm belief in those things which she never saw nor heard, and the belief had not wholly deserted her. She never saw a wood-nymph stretch out a white arm from a tree, but she believed in the possibility of it, and the belief gave her a curious delight. When she returned to the house for her scanty, elegantly served dinner with the three elder ladies, her eyes would be misty with these fancies and her mouth would wear the inscrutable smile of a baby's at the charm of them.

When she first came to East Westland she was a profound mystery to Horace, who had only known well two distinct types of girls--the purely provincial and her reverse. Rose, with her mixture of the two, puzzled him. While she was not in the least shy, she had a reserve which caused her to remain a secret to him for some time. Rose's inner life was to her something sacred, not to be lightly revealed. At last, through occasional remarks and opinions, light began to shine through. He had begun to understand her the Sunday he had followed her to Lucy Ayres's. He had, also, more than begun to love her. Horace Allen would not have loved her so soon had she been more visible as to her inner self. Things on the surface rarely interested him very much. He had not an easily aroused temperament, and a veil which stimulated his imagination and aroused his searching instinct was really essential if he were to fall in love. He had fallen in love before, he had supposed, although he had never asked one of the fair ones to marry him. Now he began to call up various faces and wonder if this were not the first time. All the faces seemed to dim before this present one. He realized something in her very dear and precious, and for the first time he felt as if he could not forego possession. Hitherto it had been easy enough to bear the slight wrench of leaving temptation and moving his tent. Here it was different. Still, the old objection remained. How could he marry upon his slight salary?

The high-school in East Westland was an endowed institution. The principal received twelve hundred a year. People in the village considered that a prodigious income. Horace, of course, knew better. He did not think that sum sufficient to risk matrimony. Here, too, he was hampered by another consideration. It was intolerable for him to think of Rose's wealth and his paltry twelve hundred per year. An ambition which had always slumbered within his mind awoke to full strength and activity. He began to sit up late at night and write articles for the papers and magazines. He had got one accepted, and received a check which to his inexperience seemed promisingly large. In spite of all his anxiety he was exalted. He began to wonder if circumstances would not soon justify him in reaching out for the sweet he coveted. He made up his mind not to be precipitate, to wait until he was sure, but his impatience had waxed during the last few hours, ever since that delicious note of stilted, even cold, praise and that check had arrived. When Rose had started to go up-stairs he had not been able to avoid following her into the hall. The door of the parlor stood open, and the whole room was full of the soft shimmer of moonlight. It looked like a bower of romance. It seemed full of soft and holy and alluring mysteries. Horace looked down at Rose, Rose looked up at him. Her eyes fell; she trembled deliciously.

"It is very early," he said, in a whispering voice which would not have been known for his. It had in it the male cadences of wooing music.

Rose stood still.

"Let us go in there a little while," whispered Horace. Rose followed him into the room; he gave the door a little push. It did not quite close, but nearly. Horace placed a chair for Rose beside a window into which the moon was shining; then he drew up one beside it, but not very close. He neither dared nor was sure that he desired. Alone with the girl in this moonlit room, an awe crept over him. She looked away from him out of the window, and he saw that this same awe was over her also. All their young pulses were thrilling, but this awe which was of the spirit held them in check. Rose, with the full white moonlight shining upon her face, gained an ethereal beauty which gave her an adorable aloofness. The young man seemed to see her through the vista of all his young dreams. She was the goddess before which his soul knelt at a distance. He thought he had never seen anything half so lovely as she was in that white light, which seemed to crown her with a frosty radiance like a nimbus. Her very expression was changed. She was smiling, but there was something a little grave and stern about her smile. Her eyes, fixed upon the clear crystal of the moon sailing through the night blue, were full of visions. It did not seem possible to him that she could be thinking of him at all, this beautiful creature with her pure regard of the holy mystery of the nightly sky; but in reality Rose, being the more emotional of the two, and also, since she was not the one to advance, the more daring, began to tremble with impatience for his closer contact, for the touch of his hand upon hers.

She would have died before she would have made the first advance, but it filled her as with secret fire. Finally a sort of anger possessed her, anger at herself and at Horace. She became horribly ashamed of herself, and angry at him because of the shame. She gazed out at the wonderful masses of shadows which the trees made, and she gazed up again at the sky and that floating crystal, and it seemed impossible that it was within her as it was. Her clear face was as calm as marble, her expression as immovable, her gaze as direct. It seemed as if a man must be a part of the wonderful mystery of the moonlit night to come within her scope of vision at all.

Rose chilled, when she did not mean to do so, by sheer maidenliness. Horace, gazing at her calm face, felt in some way rebuked. He had led a decent sort of life, but after all he was a man, and what right had he to even think of a creature like that? He leaned back in his chair, removing himself farther from her, and he also gazed at the moon. That mysterious thing of silver light and shadows, which had illumined all the ages of creation by their own reflected light, until it had come to be a mirror of creation itself, seemed to give him a sort of chill of the flesh. After all, what was everything in life but a repetition of that which had been and a certainty of death? Rose looked like a ghost to his fancy. He seemed like a ghost to himself, and felt reproached for the hot ardor surging in his fleshly heart.

"That same moon lit the world for the builders of the Pyramids," he said, tritely enough.

"Yes," murmured Rose, in a faint voice. The Pyramids chilled her. So they were what he had been thinking about, and not herself.

Horace went on. "It shone upon all those ancient battle-fields of the Old Testament, and the children of Israel in their exile," he said.

Rose looked at him. "It shone upon the Garden of Eden after Adam had so longed for Eve that she grew out of his longing and became something separate from himself, so that he could see her without seeing himself all the time; and it shone upon the garden in Solomon's Song, and the roses of Sharon, and the lilies of the valley, and the land flowing with milk and honey," said she, in a childish tone of levity which had an undercurrent of earnestness in it. All her emotional nature and her pride arose against Pyramids and Old Testament battle-fields, when she had only been conscious that the moon shone upon Horace and herself. She was shamed and angry as she had never been shamed and angry before.

Horace leaned forward and gazed eagerly at her. After all, was he mistaken? He was shrewd enough, although he did not understand the moods of women very well, and it did seem to him that there was something distinctly encouraging in her tone. Just then the night wind came in strongly at the window beside which they were sitting. An ardent fragrance of dewy earth and plants smote them in the face.

"Do you feel the draught?" asked Horace.

"I like it."

"I am afraid you will catch cold."

"I don't catch cold at all easily."

"The wind is very damp," argued Horace, with increasing confidence. He grew very bold. He seized upon one of her little white hands. "I won't believe it unless I can feel for myself that your hands are not cold," said he. He felt the little soft fingers curl around his hand with the involuntary, pristine force of a baby's. His heart beat tumultuously.

"Oh--" he began. Then he stopped suddenly as Rose snatched her hand away and again gazed at the moon.

"It is a beautiful night," she remarked, and the harmless deceit of woman, which is her natural weapon, was in her voice and manner.

Horace was more obtuse. He remained leaning eagerly towards the girl. He extended his hand again, but she repeated, in her soft, deceitful voice, "Yes, a perfectly beautiful night."

Then he observed Sylvia Whitman standing beside them. "It is a nice night enough," said she, "but you'll both catch your deaths of cold at this open window. The wind is blowing right in on you."

She made a motion to close it, stepping between Rose and Horace, but the young man sprang to his feet. "Let me close it, Mrs. Whitman," said he, and did so.

"It ain't late enough in the season to set right beside an open window and let the wind blow in on you," said Sylvia, severely. She drew up a rocking-chair and sat down. She formed the stern apex of a triangle of which Horace and Rose were the base. She leaned back and rocked.

"It is a pleasant night," said she, as if answering Rose's remark, "but to me there's always something sort of sad about moonlight nights. They make you think of times and people that's gone. I dare say it is different with you young folks. I guess I used to feel different about moonlight nights years ago. I remember when Mr. Whitman and I were first married, we used to like to set out on the front door-step and look at the moon, and make plans."

"Don't you ever now?" asked Rose.

"Now we go to bed and to sleep," replied Sylvia, decisively. There was a silence. "I guess it's pretty late," said Sylvia, in a meaning tone. "What time is it, Mr. Allen?"

Horace consulted his watch. "It is not very late," said he. It did not seem to him that Mrs. Whitman could stay.

"It can't be very late," said Rose.

"What time is it?" asked Sylvia, relentlessly.

"About half-past ten," replied Horace, with reluctance.

"I call that very late," said Sylvia. "It is late for Rose, anyway."

"I don't feel at all tired," said Rose.

"You must be," said Sylvia. "You can't always go by feelings."

She swayed pitilessly back and forth in her rocking-chair. Horace waited in an agony of impatience for her to leave them, but she had no intention of doing so. She rocked. Now and then she made some maddening little remark which had nothing whatever to do with the situation. Then she rocked again. Finally she triumphed. Rose stood up. "I think it is getting rather late," said she.

"It is very late," agreed Sylvia, also rising. Horace rose. There was a slight pause. It seemed even then that Sylvia might take pity upon them and leave them. But she stood like a rock. It was quite evident that she would settle again into her rocking-chair at the slightest indication which the two young people made of a disposition to remain.

Rose gave a fluttering little sigh. She extended her hand to Horace. "Good-night, Mr. Allen," she said.

"Good-night," returned Horace. "Good-night, Mrs. Whitman."

"It is time you went to bed, too," said Sylvia.

"I think I'll go in and have a smoke with Mr. Whitman first," said Horace.

"He's going to bed, too," said Sylvia. "He's tired. Good-night, Mr. Allen. If you open that window again, you'll be sure and shut it down before you go up-stairs, won't you?"

Horace promised that he would. Sylvia went with Rose into her room to unfasten her gown. A lamp was burning on the dressing-table. Rose kept her back turned towards the light. Her pretty face was flushed and she was almost in tears. Sylvia hung the girl's gown up carefully, then she looked at her lovingly. Unless Rose made the first advance, when Sylvia would submit with inward rapture but outward stiffness, there never were good-night kisses exchanged between the two.

"You look all tired out," said Sylvia.

"I am not at all tired," said Rose. She was all quivering with impatience, but her voice was sweet and docile. She put up her face for Sylvia to kiss. "Good-night, dear Aunt Sylvia," said she.

"Good-night," said Sylvia. Rose felt merely a soft touch of thin, tightly closed lips. Sylvia did not know how to kiss, but she was glowing with delight.

When she joined Henry in their bedroom down-stairs he looked at her in some disapproval. "I don't think you'd ought to have gone in there," he said.

"Why not?"

"Why, you must expect young folks to be young folks, and it was only natural for them to want to set there in the moonlight."

"They can set in there in the moonlight if they want to," said Sylvia. "I didn't hinder them."

"I think they wanted to be alone."

"When they set in the moonlight, I'm going to set, too," said Sylvia. She slipped off her gown carefully over her head. When the head emerged Henry saw that it was carried high with the same rigidity which had lately puzzled him, and that her face had that same expression of stern isolation.

"Sylvia," said Henry.

"Well?"

"Does anything worry you lately?"

Sylvia looked at him with sharp suspicion. "I'd like to know why you should think anything worries me," she said, "as comfortable as we are off now."

"Sylvia, have you got anything on your mind?"

"I don't want to see young folks making fools of themselves," said Sylvia, shortly, and her voice had the same tone of deceit which Rose had used when she spoke of the beautiful night.

"That ain't it," said Henry, quietly.

"Well, if you want to know," said Sylvia, "she's been pestering me with wanting to pay board if she stays along here, and I've put my foot down; she sha'n't pay a cent."

"Of course we can't let her," agreed Henry. Then he added, "This was all her own aunt's property, anyway, and if there hadn't been a will it would have come to her."

"There was a will," said Sylvia, fastening her cotton night-gown tightly around her skinny throat.

"Of course she's going to stay as long as she's contented, and she ain't going to pay board," said Henry; "but that ain't the trouble. Have you got anything on your mind, Sylvia?"

"I hope so," replied Sylvia, sharply. "I hope I've got a little something on my mind. I ain't a fool."

Henry said no more. Neither he nor Sylvia went to sleep at once. The moon's pale influence lit their room and seemed disturbing in itself. Presently they both smelled cigar smoke.

"He's smoking," said Sylvia. "Well, nothing makes much difference to you men, as long as you can smoke. I'd like to know what you'd do in my place."

"Have you got anything on your mind, Sylvia?"

"Didn't I say I hoped I had? Everybody has something on her mind, unless she's a tarnation fool, and I ain't never set up for one."

Henry did not speak again.

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Chapter XIIHenry Whitman and his wife Sylvia remained, the one reading his Sunday paper, the other her book, while Horace and Rose were away. Henry's paper rustled, Sylvia turned pages gently. Occasionally she smiled the self-satisfied smile of the reader who thinks she understands the author, to her own credit. Henry scowled over his paper the scowl of one who reads to disapprove, to his own credit.Both were quite engrossed. Sylvia had reached an extremely interesting portion of her book, and Henry was reading a section of his paper which made him fairly warlike. However, the clock striking four aroused both
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